Sumner Redstone, Hollywood Mogul Who Led Viacom and CBS, Dies at 97

The theater owner’s son created a media empire through National Amusements guided by the credo “content is king”

Sumner Redstone

Sumner Redstone, a movie theater owner’s son who became one of the most powerful moguls in Hollywood history, died Tuesday at the age of 97.

The Redstone Family’s National Amusements, Inc., which controls ViacomCBS, said the following in a statement:

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Sumner M. Redstone, the self-made businessman, philanthropist and World War II veteran who built one of the largest collections of media assets in the world. He passed away yesterday at the age of 97.

Over the course of his distinguished life and career, Sumner played a critical role in shaping the landscape of the modern media and entertainment industry. At National Amusements, he transformed a regional theater chain into a world leader in the motion picture exhibition industry. Sumner was also a keen investor who took stakes in a variety of companies, including Viacom Inc. and CBS Corporation – today merged as ViacomCBS – which he built into prominent, international and industry-leading conglomerates in the media industry.

Sumner was a man of unrivaled passion and perseverance, who devoted his life to his belief in the power of content. With his passing, the media industry he loved so dearly loses one of its great champions. Sumner, a loving father, grandfather and great-grandfather, will be greatly missed by his family who take comfort knowing that his legacy will live on for generations to come.

“Sumner Redstone was a brilliant visionary, operator and dealmaker, who single-handedly transformed a family-owned drive-in theater company into a global media portfolio,” Bob Bakish, the president and CEO of the again-combined ViacomCBS, added. “He was a force of nature and fierce competitor, who leaves behind a profound legacy in both business and philanthropy. ViacomCBS will remember Sumner for his unparalleled passion to win, his endless intellectual curiosity, and his complete dedication to the company. We extend our deepest sympathies to the Redstone family today.”

Viacom and CBS recombined as one company in December after about 14 years apart.

The majority owner and chairman emeritus of media giants Viacom and CBS Corp., as well as Paramount Pictures, MTV Networks, BET and, Redstone actively guided the businesses until just a few years before his death. He also served as chairman of the board of the National Amusements movie theater chain, which his father founded in 1936 and which remains his family’s business. He substantially expanded the company, achieving a personal net worth of $4.9 billion, according to Forbes in 2018.

In recent years, Redstone was mostly in the news for legal drama surrounding his family and his businesses. In May 2016, Redstone removed former protege Philippe Dauman and Viacom director George Abrams from his trust and the National Amusements, Inc. board of directors — sparking a drawn-out battle in the press and the courts that resulted in Dauman’s ouster as Viacom CEO.

That wasn’t Redstone’s only time in court toward the end of his life — he also took on ex-girlfriend Manuela Herzer as well as executives and board members who questioned his mental capacity.

Redstone, who has been credited with coining the phrase “content is king,” acted on the credo as few individuals have. While at National Amusements in the 1970s, he invested in Columbia Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Orion Pictures and Paramount Pictures — which he later bought — and the decision paid huge dividends when he sold their stock in the 1980s.

In 2012, Paramount Pictures renamed the administration building on the studio lot as the Sumner Redstone Building in a dedication ceremony attended by hundreds of employees of Paramount Pictures and Viacom. It was fitting, as Redstone oversaw one of the most successful periods ever at Paramount, after outbidding Barry Diller and John Malone to buy Paramount Communications in 1993.

With Sherry Lansing and Jonathan Dolgen at the helm, the studio reeled off a series of hits, including “Saving Private Ryan” and Academy Award Best Picture winners “Braveheart” “Titanic” and “Forrest Gump.” The studio also launched the “Mission Impossible” franchise with star Tom Cruise, whom he later famously fired before later reconciling.

Under chairman and CEO Brad Grey from 2005 to 2017, the studio launched the “Transformers” and “Paranormal Activity” franchises and revitalized the ebbing “Star Trek” series. Grey died in 2017.

Redstone’s studio also got in business with top-tier filmmakers and talent including James Cameron, J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay, Martin Scorsese and Joel and Ethan Coen. The studio also launched a worldwide film distribution network, Paramount Pictures International.

Soon after the Paramount acquisition, Redstone bought Blockbuster Entertainment, which was then at the forefront of the retail boom as consumers embraced first VHS and then DVDs. The deal included Aaron Spelling’s production company and a huge library of films, which were eventually shifted to Paramount Pictures.

In December 2005, Redstone announced that Paramount had acquired DreamWorks SKG for an estimated $1.6 billion, a deal completed in 2006. Subsequent financing brought Viacom’s investment down to $700 million.

While Paramount was flourishing, Redstone acquired CBS Corp. in 2000. He spun the company off in 2005 along with Paramount’s TV shows and catalog. That left Viacom with Paramount Pictures, music publisher Famous Music and the MTV Networks, which include Nickelodeon and VH1, among others.

In August 2019, the two companies announced they would re-merge to create a $30 billion entertainment giant. Shari Redstone, Sumner’s daughter and vice-chair of both companies as well as president of National Amusements, engineered the deal after the ouster of longtime CBS CEO Les Moonves in 2018. The recombination capped a period of consolidation in Hollywood with Disney’s 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox and AT&T’s 2018 purchase of Time Warner.

Sumner Murray Richards was born in Boston on May 27, 1923, to Belle and Michael Rothstein. His father changed the family surname from “Rothstein” to “Redstone,” a literal translation of the German-Jewish, Michael Rothstein owned Northeast Theater Corporation in Dedham, Massachusetts — the forerunner of National Amusements — and the Boston branch of the Latin Quarter Nightclub.

He attended Boston Latin School, from which he graduated first in his class, and in 1944 he graduated from Harvard College in just three years. Later, Redstone served as First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II with a team that decoded Japanese messages. After this military service, he worked in Washington, D.C., and attended Georgetown University Law School, then transferred to Harvard Law School and received his law degree in 1947.

Redstone served as special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark and then worked for the U.S. Dept. of Justice Tax Division in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, and then entered private practice. In 1954, he joined his father’s theater chain, National Amusements, and in 1967 he became CEO of the company.

Redstone, who lived in Beverly Hills in recent years, was married twice. He married Phyllis Gloria Raphael in 1947, and they had two children, Brent and Shari Redstone, who is president and owns 20 percent of National Amusements today. They divorced in 1999 and three years later he married Paula Fortunato. They divorced in 2009.

In 1979, Redstone suffered severe burns in a fire at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, but survived after 30 hours of extensive surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. Though doctors warned him that he might never be able to live a normal life, eight years later he was playing tennis nearly every day — and ready to launch a hostile takeover of Viacom in 1987.